Democrats’ Only Chance to Stop the GOP Assault on Voting Rights

March 3, 2021
In The News

The most explosive battle in decades over access to the voting booth will reach a new crescendo this week, as Republican-controlled states advance an array of measures to restrict the ballot, and the U.S. House of Representatives votes on the federal legislation that represents Democrats’ best chance to stop them. It’s no exaggeration to say that future Americans could view the resolution of this struggle as a turning point in the history of U.S. democracy. The outcome could not only shape the balance of power between the parties, but determine whether that democracy grows more inclusive or exclusionary. To many civil-rights advocates and democracy scholars I’ve spoken with, this new wave of state-level bills constitutes the greatest assault on Americans’ right to vote since the Jim Crow era’s barriers to the ballot.... In Georgia, Texas, Arizona, Iowa, and Montana, Republican governors and legislators are moving forward bills that would reduce access to voting by mail, limit early voting, ban ballot drop boxes, inhibit voter-registration drives, and toughen identification requirements—measures inspired by the same discredited claims of election fraud that Donald Trump pushed after his 2020 loss.... As a result, Democrats may have a single realistic opportunity to resist not only these proposals, but also GOP plans to institute severe partisan congressional gerrymanders in many of the same states. That opportunity: using Democrats’ unified control of Washington to establish national election standards—by passing the omnibus election-reform bill known as H.R. 1, which is scheduled for a House vote today, and the new Voting Rights Act, which is expected to come to the floor later this year. Democrats may have only a brief window in which to block these state-level GOP maneuvers.... If Democrats lose their slim majority in either congressional chamber next year, they will lose their ability to pass voting-rights reform. After that, the party could face a debilitating dynamic: Republicans could use their state-level power to continue limiting ballot access, which would make regaining control of the House or the Senate more difficult for Democrats—and thus prevent them from passing future national voting rules that override the exclusionary state laws. “There’s an increasing appreciation,” Democratic Representative John Sarbanes of Maryland, H.R. 1’s chief sponsor, told me, that “if we can’t get these changes in place in time for the 2022 midterm election, the efforts that Republicans are taking at the state level to lock in this voter-suppression regime” and maximize their advantage via partisan gerrymanders “will reshape the environment in a way that makes it impossible to get this, or frankly many other things, done.” The outcome in the House for both H.R. 1 and a new VRA isn’t in much doubt. No Democrat voted against either bill when the chamber first passed them in 2019. This year, every House Democrat has already endorsed H.R. 1, ensuring its passage today. Although some Senate observers have questioned whether the moderate Democrat Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, will support H.R. 1’s Senate equivalent, most election-reform advocates I’ve spoken with expect that, in the end, Manchin and every other Senate Democrat will back both voting-rights bills, as they did in the previous Congress.... Senate Republicans are likely to try to kill these bills with a filibuster. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, the principal sponsor of H.R. 1’s Senate analogue, has been urging his colleagues to consider ending the filibuster for these bills alone, even if they are unwilling to end it for all legislation.... One White House official, who asked not to be identified while discussing internal strategy, told me that “the president is committed to defending the voting rights of all Americans, and keenly aware of the ongoing threats to those rights....”  Although Democrats first introduced H.R. 1 and the new VRA long before the 2020 campaign, everything that has happened since Election Day has underscored the stakes in this struggle. The GOP’s state-level offensive amounts to an extension of the assault Trump mounted in the courts, in state legislatures, and ultimately through the attack that he inspired against the Capitol. If nothing else, the GOP’s boldness can leave Democrats with little doubt about what they can expect in the years ahead if they do not establish nationwide election standards.... In red states, civil-rights and government-reform groups are struggling to combat these restrictions.... H.R. 1 would reverse many of the restrictive policies advancing in red states.... Against the backdrop of the red-state voting offensive, the fate of H.R. 1 looks like a genuine inflection point.... More and more Democrats, Sarbanes said, are coming to recognize that “this isn’t just about trying to do something now that we can do later. This is about doing something now that we may not get the chance to do again for another 50 years.” Democrats face an unforgiving equation: a fleeting window in which to act, and potentially lasting consequences if they don’t. “If you look at all the stakes that are involved,” Sarbanes continued, “the notion that you would miss this opportunity becomes incomprehensible.”